Study sheds new light on why it ‘makes sense’ to psychopathic individuals to not help others

People with higher levels of psychopathic traits are less likely to be influenced by a witnessing a morally inspirational act compared to individuals who show few psychopathic traits, according to a new study.

The findings, which appear in the journal Psychiatry Research, suggest that psychopathic individuals inhabit a world that is “relatively lacking in positive emotional responses,” which makes them less likely to engage in prosocial behaviors.

“Throughout my career, I have worked with patients with antisocial behavior problems, many of whom are involved with the criminal justice system. We sometimes focus our efforts on co-occurring disorders such as drug abuse, mood and anxiety disorders. But our lab has been partly interested in better understanding these underlying antisocial behavior tendencies,” said study author Joseph T. Sakai of the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“When a person with high levels of psychopathic traits acts in negative ways, we may look from the outside and be confused as to how someone could choose to act so negatively – but in our work we assume that the behavior makes sense to that individual in that moment based on their experience of the situation, the information available to them and their feeling state,” Sakai said. “So we have tried to better understand why it may ‘make sense’ to an individual with psychopathy to engage in less helping behaviors and more other harming behaviors.”

“When you hear a story about an uncommon act of kindness how do you feel? Ever feel warmth in your chest? Or even begin to tear up, but not with tears of sadness? Why do we react this way? Another’s kindness, even though it doesn’t benefit us directly, may change the way we feel, make us feel better about and more connected to the world, and draw from us a desire to be a better person,” he added.

“Now imagine that you couldn’t feel those kinds of feelings – really feel them in a genuine way – that it was hard to feel those rewarding feelings that kindness can bring. Imagine that when you heard such a story and saw others’ reactions to it that it baffled you – that as you sat in a movie theater and watched a character make the most giving act, you saw others in the audience react and wondered why they were crying. What would that be like?”

In the study, 120 young adults played an online game in which they could accept or reject a series of monetary offers. The offers provided them with a chance to earn money at the expense of a charity.

Before playing the game, some of the participants watched a video of a man risking his life to save a person who had fallen onto subway tracks after experiencing a seizure. The other participants watched this video after playing the game.

The researchers found that participants who watched the uncommon act of kindness before playing the game tended to take less money for themselves — but this effect was influenced by psychopathic traits.

“We found that people with high levels of psychopathic traits had a blunted reaction to the video (what has been termed an Elevation response). The size of that Elevation response was also related to helping behaviors — the more responsive people were to the video, the more likely they were to help the charity at a cost to themselves,” Sakai told PsyPost.

“High levels of psychopathic traits were related to less helping behaviors. We completed mediation analyses suggesting that the link between high psychopathic traits and less helping behavior is partly explained by a blunted Elevation response. So we believe that individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits may have a harder time feeling a positive emotional response to others’ kindness, having a blunted ability to feel an Elevation response. As such they may feel less internally motivated to help others.”

Like all research, the study includes some caveats. The researchers examined psychopathic personality traits — callousness in particular. But that is not the same as clinical antisocial personality disorder.

“In this study, we examined psychopathic traits in a general population sample. We didn’t recruit patients with psychopathy. So we can’t be sure if our results would apply to those with psychopathy without conducting additional studies,” Sakai explained.

“Also, our mediation analyses are helpful but the study was not designed in a way to show causality. So although our mediation analyses are in line with our proposed model, additional studies will be needed to determine causality in the relationships between psychopathic traits, Elevation response and helping behaviors.”

The study, “Testing helping behavior and its relationship to antisocial personality and psychopathic traits“, was authored by Joseph T. Sakai, Kristen M. Raymond, Shannon K. McWilliams, and Susan K. Mikulich-Gilbertson.